Halloween, Past and Present

artaddictaHmm, who was that masked man?

(NOTE: This is a piece I wrote for the defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which was published in their Sunday editorial section back on Oct. 28, 2007. I used to do a weekly column about addictions and recovery, and thought this was an interesting take on why we like Halloween so much.)

Halloween is a drunkard’s dream — a strange brew of revelry, scary stuff, and for many adults, copious amounts of alcohol. It’s one of the few occasions on which the crazier you behave, the more people cheer you on. Any other time you’d be arrested.

Before I got sober, it was my favorite holiday because I could be whoever I wanted to be. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell the truth.” Give him a flask though, and it gets trickier to tell whether it’s honesty or the booze talking.

Throughout history, masks have been associated with man’s two-faced nature. Shamans wore them to ward off evil spirits, heal the sick or communicate with the dead. Ancient Greek actors used masks to convey emotions and amplify their voices. And of course, masks have been used for comedic effect dating back to the first Neanderthal who put on a boar’s snout for yuks.

Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of costumes that make Halloween parties so much fun. When you see a man in drag, what is he really saying about his sexuality or phobias? Is the office assistant in that skintight Elvira dress hinting she’s not so prim?

Then you have the “witty” costumes that make reference to current events or historical figures. Those people are saying, “Look at me! I’m much smarter than that schlub in the Austin Powers get-up!” Avoid them at parties unless you are Mensa material.

In college, like most young adults, I tried on various personas. But my Halloween creations were more like bad performance art. One year I was the back half of a dining table, with my head sticking through a hole so it appeared to be sitting on a plate. Another time I was the fictional frontman for an awful punk rock band, Nick Nucleus & The Amoebas. I told everyone we “split up” during our first performance of “Mitosis Boogie.”

My sophomore year, I became a demure Geisha with the help of heavy make-up applied by a girlfriend who loaned me her kimono. I didn’t think I was going to fool anyone; my hairy eyebrows were a dead giveaway.

However, I forgot about the “beer goggle” effect that lonely men experience after too many drinks. While I was at a frat party on campus, I went over to the keg for a refill. Loud disco music thumped from the speakers. A clean-cut guy held the tap open for me, smiled and shyly asked me to dance. As I raised my bushy eyebrows in bemusement, he blurted: “Oh, shit.” Then he laughed and suggested we could still dance. I think he was joking.

I’m not sure why so many guys enjoy being a woman on Halloween. Women tend to stick with their own feminine gender roles — just trashier. Naughty nurses, sexy school girl uniforms, and the old standby, slutty kitties. It makes you wonder whose fantasies they’re acting out, and why they so willingly objectify themselves. Not that I’m complaining.

Another reason to like Halloween is the paradoxical aspects. It started as a Celtic pagan festival to mark the change of seasons, a time when the worlds of the dead and the living overlapped. Yet the same morbid holiday gives young ladies an excuse to display their inner kinkiness. It’s sex and death in the same Trick or Treat bag!

A psychologist could explain better what our costume choices reveal about us. All I know is in my younger days, the masks I wore allowed me to morph from an introvert with stage fright into a trickster who did things my “normal” self never could do. Like hijacking a New York City parade.

I used to live near Greenwich Village where they have an outrageous Halloween parade every year. The only costume left in the store was one of those cheap boxed sets that kids wear over their clothes. It was the “Joanie Loves Chachi” set. Somehow I wound up in front of the parade as it meandered towards Seventh Avenue South, where I frequented a jazz club by the same name. Musicians from the “Saturday Night Live” band and David Letterman show were regulars at that bar, so I thought it would be fun if I led the parade there.

I was like the Pied Piper of drunks and degenerates. Hundreds jammed into the small building. It got so crazy that the ungrateful club owners ordered me to stop partying and work behind the bar as unpaid help. On the bright side though, my homage to “Joanie Loves Chachi” won the Worst Costume prize.

Alcohol was the elixir that fueled my alter egos. But the hangovers and blackouts left me feeling empty and spent. There was no real me. Just stories about someone I didn’t recognize as myself. The Wolfman probably felt the same way the morning after a full moon.

I have a picture of myself from the day I checked into rehab, four years after the parade fiasco. On my face is the same look of bemusement I had when the guy at the kegger realized I wasn’t a chick. It’s as if in that moment, the mask had come off and I finally knew the truth. I was an alcoholic in need of help. Thankfully, I got it.

Many addicts don’t get that opportunity. Maybe it’s because we see their mug shots and they scare us — they are monsters, who will corrupt your children or kill someone. They have to be banished, locked away like the boogeyman who hides in our bedroom closets. The reality is most of them aren’t much different than me or you.

What we see in the masks worn by others, more often than not reflects our own fears and desires. Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. I look at them now and they remind me of addicts, caught between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. I was one of them. But that party monster has been laid to rest, along with my other alter egos.

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